Solar panels connected to smart meters could feed electricity into the power grid, low-income residents could get $2.7 million to weatherize homes, and a special ombudsman could help landowners resolve disputes over power lines.

Those and other measures are in an innovative agreement signed Friday by Central Maine Power Co. and other parties in the utility’s landmark transmission project case before the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

In exchange for funding energy-efficiency programs and making other concessions, CMP could begin work, as early as this summer, on upgrading its aging, high-voltage network, which runs 350 miles from Orrington to the New Hampshire border.

The PUC, whose approval is needed, plans to deliberate the settlement on May 14.

The three commissioners can accept, modify or reject the deal. If they reject it, a formal deliberation on the initial case is set for May 26.

The $1.4 billion Maine Power Reliability Project is considered the largest transmission project ever proposed in Maine. More than 2,000 jobs are projected over four years. It’s also a major windfall for CMP, which makes money by operating transmission lines.

Some opponents, as well as staff experts at the PUC, had recommended scaling back the project and cutting its cost from $1.5 billion to $1 billion. That idea was mostly rejected in the pending deal.

If the settlement is accepted, CMP will get to build much of what it proposed when the case began two years ago. It has maintained that the upgrade is needed to ensure reliable service and serve wind power projects that are proposed in western and northern Maine.

But CMP’s agreement to fund million of dollars in energy-efficiency programs and embrace new technology that can cut peak demand for power use creates conditions to control rates in the years ahead, said Richard Davies, the state’s public advocate and a key party in the case.

“In the future, building new transmission won’t be the answer to all our problems,” Davies said.

CMP issued a release Friday afternoon saying the project would ensure reliability for years to come, encourage development of renewable energy and allow for a quick start of construction.

“The parties to the (agreement) believe that approval by the MPUC will provide substantial and lasting benefits to Maine,” the company said.

Because the costs of transmission projects are shared throughout New England, Maine customers would pay 8 percent of the bill

The negotiated settlement was signed in Augusta by CMP and roughly two dozen parties that included state officials, utilities, contractors, power generators and even a birding club.

The settlement does scale down some aspects of the original plan. Transmission upgrades in the Rockland and Lewiston areas would be eliminated, as would some equipment planned for the Cumberland-Yarmouth area.

The parties also agree to help develop a power grid that uses sophisticated meters and communications systems to monitor electricity use and manage it with strategically placed solar arrays, other local generators and real-time conservation measures. The approach is known as smart grid technology.

CMP has agreed to work with Portland-based Grid Solar on two pilot projects, one in the Portland area and the other in the midcoast.

Grid Solar is promoting a concept of using solar panels to meet demand spikes on hot days. The solar output would be backed up with other forms of generation and “demand response,” such as factories shutting down unneeded equipment or homes automatically turning off air conditioners.

CMP’s project drew opposition from many residents who live near the power corridor. As part of the settlement, CMP agreed to hire an ombudsman to work with landowners during the construction phase. It also agreed to take reasonable steps to limit the output of electromagnetic fields associated with high-voltage lines, consistent with the recommendations of the World Health Organization.

In addition to funding weatherization for low-income residents, CMP agreed to pay $2.6 million in 2012, and $500,000 a year for nine years, for efficiency projects at factories.

An additional $900,000 in 2012, and $700,000 a year for nine years, would go to energy efficiency projects identified by Efficiency Maine Trust.

It also would pay $1.5 million to help the public advocate and other parties participate in regional transmission planning.

CMP has agreed not to try to recover any of the spending from customers’ rates.

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

[email protected]